The #MeToo moment of Turkish literature

Several women have come out against Turkish writer Hasan Ali Toptaş, accusing him of sexual abuse. Whenever accounts like this come to light, there are always those who rush to the perpetrator’s defense. To the doubt-casters there is nothing to say but “believe women.” People have nothing to gain from publicly sharing their most traumatic memories, especially when they know they will be called liars.

On December 7th, a video made the rounds on social media showing an interview with the famous writer Hasan Ali Toptaş sharing his thoughts about translation. In the clip, the 62-year-old, white-bearded novelist said that when looking at a literary work translated into Turkish, he first checks the translator’s birth year. According to Toptaş, young translators use a modern impoverished form of Turkish that ruins the flavor of the original. Seeing this curmudgeonly writer dismiss the work of my colleagues, I said to myself “OK, boomer” and continued scrolling.

It quickly became clear that Toptaş was more than a grumpy, old literati but a sexual harasser as well. A Twitter user named Leyla Robinson also saw the video clip and commented, "How many of us are waiting for this man to be exposed?" Her question opened the floodgates to numerous accounts of harassment and assault by Toptaş dating back from the 1990s to the present. As with the exposing of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s abuse of women, the chilling stories about Toptaş’s actions has created a #MeToo moment for Turkey’s literary scene. 

After Leyla Robinson shared her story of sexual harassment, her inbox was filled with stories from women who had experienced similar “unpleasant” encounters with this writer described by The Frankfurter Allgemeine as Turkey’s Franz Kafka. Even Toptaş has published a short statement admitting wrongdoing, though he claims it was unintentional. One of the women who shared her story was writer Pelin Buzluk. Speaking with the Turkish daily Hürriyet, Buzluk described going to a literary party in 2011. Her husband couldn’t come so she went alone. Because the weather was hot, she wore a summer dress. During the event, Toptaş tried to “physically approach and force” her into sexual contact. At one point, Buzluk locked herself in the bathroom to get away, telling Toptaş “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to.” Toptaş responded: “In that case, why did you wear this dress?” 

This kind of victim-blaming is horrendous in any situation, but it is especially disappointing for a writer known for his extraordinary use of the Turkish language to fall back on such an offensive and cliched excuse. When a woman is assaulted in the street at night, a frequent statement made by the police, the judges, or public opinion in general is “Why was she walking alone so late?” or “Why was she dressed like that if she didn’t want attention?” For example, when Şule Çet was raped and pushed off a high-rise building in Ankara in a high-profile case, medical forensics expert Dr. Mehmet Nuri Aydın wrote in his report that “If a woman agrees to drink alcohol with a man in an isolated place, she has consented to a sexual relationship.” Aydın was suspended from his job, but many others face no consequences for similar statements. There is little difference between these attempts to justify rape or murder and Toptaş implying that wearing a dress means that a woman is available for sex. 

From the police to the isolated rapist to the country’s highest intellectual circles, patriarchal justifications for sexual harassment and assault are very much the same. Turkish literature’s #MeToo moment reveals that the problem is not underdevelopment or education or class status but masculinity. 

For the problem is not limited to Toptaş. In her messages of support for the survivors speaking up about Toptaş’s behavior, famous novelist Aslı Tohumcu revealed that she had been harassed by the writer Bora Abdo. Tohumcu argues that women need to raise their voices about these situations because doing so gives each other courage. Speaking to Hürriyet, Tohumcu commented “We have nothing to fear. Quite the opposite, I’m sure that right now a number of men are sitting at home fearing being exposed and wondering when it’s going to be their turn. We will neither forget the harassers nor those who support them.” 

Whenever accounts like this come to light, there are always those who rush to the perpetrator’s defense. A similar pattern emerges: first there are those who cast doubt on the account of harassment or assault and ask for proof. Then there are those who blame the survivors themselves, accusing them of being hysterical or plotting to ruin the writer’s (or director’s or actor’s or artist’s) life. Then come those who try to argue that the perpetrator may have committed wrongs, but the works they have produced are innocent. “There’s no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” they cry. 

To the doubt-casters there is nothing to say but “believe women.” People have nothing to gain from publicly sharing their most traumatic memories, especially when they know they will be called liars. And especially when the perpetrator is a famous person with power and connections, it is especially difficult for survivors to get their stories heard. The people who should be denounced are not those that come forward but those who don’t: that is, all the people who heard stories of harassment but chose to remain silent and do nothing. By all accounts, Toptaş’s behavior has been an open secret in Ankara’s literary circles for years. 

The harder question to answer is what relationship the writer has to the work. This is an old dilemma with many examples. Do we still read Heidegger’s philosophical works though we know he was a Nazi? Can we be aware that Woody Allen is a rapist and still watch his films? Many of the women who were harassed by Toptaş were, and in some cases remain, admirers of his work. In fact, according to some accounts, the writer has used this admiration to try and leverage sexual contact. But do Toptaş’s novels exist separately from Toptaş the man? Zehra Çelenk perhaps answered this question best in her column for Gazete Duvar. She writes, “A man who traps a woman in a bathroom, who cannot empathize with a young student who has no idea what is happening to her—to what degree can such a man really delve into the deep contradictions and anxieties of human relationships? Doesn’t such hypocrisy seep into the mountains of words and metaphors and tarnish the soul of the work? Can the fictional world of a person who can’t solve the most basic and fundamental of questions be considered separately from this crudeness.” We may be able to keep reading Toptaş’s works, but a careful and aware reader should not be able to do so in isolation from what we now know.

Toptaş’s statement of apology, if it can be called that, has shown this master of language to be frightfully incapable of reading the room. On Twitter he wrote, “One can make mistakes without knowing, realizing, or thinking about the wounds inflicted on the other party, without understanding what patriarchal agency means.” It is hard to trust in the timeless literary insights of someone who neither knows, realizes, or thinks but who blames this on patriarchy in the abstract. Similarly, Toptaş wrote that he apologizes “to all the people I hurt, upset, and injured” but claims that his actions were “unknowing.” 

When the perpetrator himself refuses to take responsibility, we must turn our attention to those who make his fame and power possible. On the afternoon of December 12, his publishing house Everest, decided to do the right thing. They shared a statement notifying the public that they are cutting ties with Toptaş. “We are against every form of harassment,” the publisher wrote. 

It is important that violence and abuse have consequences. This is not “cancel culture” but responsibility. To say that one will not support someone who hurts others is not a form of punishment (Twitter users, literature fans, and publishing houses are not a court of law) but care. It means that things like harassment and assault are unacceptable. And to achieve a world without these things, we must listen to women’s voices. 

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